With six national championships under its belt, the North Carolina men's basketball team has given its fan base plenty to celebrate over the years.
But in college basketball, annual success can lead to lofty expectations — which are difficult to fulfill year after year.
One way or another, fans can’t help but look back at times when a bad break or tough luck derailed a shot at another banner. Here are two what-if moments that might cause UNC fans to question what could have happened if luck was in their favor.
What if UNC beat Indiana in 1984?
Just two years after cutting down the nets in 1982, the Tar Heels looked destined to reach the pinnacle of college hoops once again.
The team was filled with talent, as Michael Jordan — the 1984 Naismith Player of the Year — was joined by future top-10 NBA draft picks Kenny Smith, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty in the starting lineup. Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 and finished with a 27-2 record, with their only two losses coming by a combined three points.
After beating Temple in the second round of the Tournament, UNC faced Bob Knight's Indiana in the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels struggled early, as foul trouble from Jordan limited his action and took the Tar Heels into halftime down 32-28.
Ultimately, the second half wasn’t much better, and the Tar Heels were stunned in a 72-68 defeat. The Hoosiers were effective in slowing down Jordan, causing him to foul out and finish with only 13 points in his final game as a Tar Heel.
Had the Tar Heels won, they would have faced a Virginia team in the Elite Eight that they had already beaten twice that season. If their regular season success was any indication, it seems likely they would have secured a Final Four berth.
In the Final Four, success would have been far from guaranteed. The potential matchups would have been Hakeem Olajuwon and Houston in the semifinal, and Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the title match. Containing Olajuwon and Ewing, both Hall of Famers, in consecutive games would have been a tall task. In addition, Georgetown might have carried extra motivation to avenge their previous defeat by UNC in the 1982 final.
The 1984 UNC team is ultimately known as one of the greatest college basketball teams to not win a title. In retrospect, the large pool of talent in college basketball that year makes the team’s regular season accomplishments hold even more weight than usual.
What if Kendall Marshall didn’t break his wrist?
While ‘what if Kris Jenkins missed his shot in 2016?’ is something to consider, the same core of UNC players went on to win the title the following year, so arguably, the first event led to the second.
The same couldn’t be said about the 2012 team, which had its own redemptive campaign prematurely shut down due to a key injury.
After losing in the Elite Eight the previous season, first-year Harrison Barnes surprisingly announced his intentions to return for his sophomore season, which set the stage for UNC to be the preseason No. 1 team. During the regular season, the team met its high expectations, finishing with a 29-5 record and a regular season ACC title.
While Barnes and teammates Tyler Zeller and John Henson were named to the All-ACC first team, the catalyst was the point guard, Kendall Marshall. Averaging nearly 10 assists per game, Marshall won the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s best point guard.
In the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels would discover Marshall’s importance when they lost the star guard. After driving in for a layup, he fell on his hand, breaking his wrist, and was sidelined for the rest of the Tournament. Without their main offensive distributor, the Tar Heels’ title hopes faded, and they ultimately lost in the Elite Eight to Kansas.
Should the Tar Heels have been fully healthy, the Kansas match up would have likely been more competitive, which would have given them a better chance at reaching the Final Four. There they would have faced Ohio State, and then Kentucky.
Much like 1984, the Final Four would have been a gauntlet. Ohio State ended the year ranked in the top-10, and Kentucky narrowly beat UNC earlier in the season, was ranked No. 1 in the nation and was led by Naismith Player of the Year Anthony Davis. Despite these challenges, it would have been interesting to see how a healthy UNC team would have handled the talent on the floor against them.
Ultimately, in both of these scenarios, it is difficult to analyze what would have happened if these seasons didn’t end as early as they did. Both groups had a chance at a championship, but there's no way to prove it definitively. These examples serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to earn a title, and what it takes to have a chance to cut down those nets come April.
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